Meet Chris Clemens
The award-winning Carolina astrophysicist, teacher, inventor, entrepreneur and strategic thinker begins a new chapter in February as the next executive vice chancellor and provost.
Last week, Chris Clemens, Jaroslav Folda Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy in the College of Arts & Sciences, was named Carolina’s next executive vice chancellor and provost, effective Feb. 1, 2022.
Clemens joined the College’s physics and astronomy department as an accomplished astrophysicist in 1998. Since then, he has served as chair of physics and astronomy, senior associate dean for natural sciences and senior associate dean for research and innovation in the College of Arts & Sciences, and most recently as the director of Carolina’s Institute for Convergent Science.
Clemens’ research interests include stellar seismology, interacting binaries, time-resolved photometry and spectroscopy, and astronomical instrumentation. He earned his Bachelor of Science in astrophysics from the University of Oklahoma and his doctorate in astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin in 1994. He had prize postdoctoral fellowships at Iowa State University and Caltech before coming to Carolina.
The University has awarded him the Hettleman Prize for Artistic and Scholarly Achievement and the Faculty Award for Excellence in Doctoral Mentoring.
“I’ve known Chris for nearly 15 years and have worked closely with him on a range of ambitious projects to enhance the academic excellence of Carolina. I know he’ll do an outstanding job as our next chief academic officer. Chris’ deep understanding of the links between rigorous interdisciplinary research, excellent teaching and the value of free inquiry makes him the right person to take on this role at this crucial time in Carolina’s history.”
— Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz
Clemens was instrumental in launching the College’s Program for Public Discourse in 2019, serving as its inaugural director. Through curricular and extracurricular programs, the PPD seeks to support a culture of debate and deliberation, enabling Carolina students to be better citizens, leaders and stewards of democracy.
In March 2019 Clemens was named senior associate dean for research and innovation, a new position created to drive strategic planning and provide guidance across the College’s academic divisions and research programs, fostering new models of innovation, new initiatives and new collaborations.
Before that, as senior associate dean for natural sciences, Clemens worked with Jaye Cable, who would later succeed him in that role in the Dean’s Office, to launch the Environment, Ecology and Energy program (E3P). He collaborated with chairs to build the research enterprise and help develop the curriculum in the College’s applied physical sciences and biomedical engineering departments. And he drafted a plan and funding proposal for the pilot of the Institute for Convergent Science.
A passionate proponent of convergent science — interdisciplinary research designed to tackle compelling problems and promote learning — Clemens serves as faculty director of the Institute for Convergent Science and is the Chancellor’s Eminent Professor of Convergent Science. And he has overseen ICS operations in the Genome Science Building.
Clemens says the ICS has three phases in its innovation framework, identified most simply as Ready, Set and Go. In the Ready phase, the ICS helps support faculty in refining and vetting their ideas. A newly renovated 7,500-square-foot-space on the Genome Science Building’s ground floor, named the Convergent Commons, is instrumental to this phase. The Set phase supports the precommercial development of technologies and inventions and helps build the commercialization team and strategy. When ventures are on firm ground and ready to launch as independent companies, they move to the Go phase and enter the KickStart Accelerator. (Start-up companies are already benefiting from KickStart.)
Clemens’ teaching embodies his interdisciplinary approach. He and Brett Whalen, professor in the College’s history department, developed a 2018 course called “Time and the Medieval Cosmos,” which challenged students to explore the sciences and the humanities together — to think critically about a subject from many points of view.
Students learned that people in the Middle Ages wrestled with scientific questions, even if they framed them differently and were thinking more about them in terms of theology. For example, early scientists used the cycles of the moon and sun to determine the date of Easter, so Clemens taught students an ancient method for calculating the phase of the moon on any given date of any year using only their left hand
Clemens designed and taught a similar study abroad course in London called “Time, Tides, and the Measurement of the Cosmos,” which explored how people reckoned calendars, time and tides, both for navigation and daily life, before clocks and the printed word.
“The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees approved the Chancellor’s recommendation to appoint Dr. Chris Clemens as executive vice chancellor and provost of the University. We’re excited about the University’s momentum moving into the new year and about the energy Dr. Clemens will bring to the Provost’s Office.”
— Board of Trustees Chair David L. Boliek Jr.
Studying the cosmos
Carolina has long ties to deep space. It was home to the first astronomical observatory at a U.S. university, a brick and stone building with a slot in the roof and a moveable tower for instruments built by University president Joseph Caldwell in the 1820s. When Morehead Planetarium opened in 1949, it became the first planetarium in the South and one of only eight in the country. Between 1960 and 1975, nearly every astronaut who participated in the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz programs — including Neil Armstrong and John Glenn — came to Morehead Planetarium to study celestial navigation, a critical skill in the event that automatic navigation systems failed while they were in space.
Clemens has furthered Carolina’s space-related teaching and research. He has been deeply involved in the University’s partnership in the Southern Astrophysical Research telescope, or SOAR, in Chile. The SOAR Telescope project was initiated by Carolina to further astrophysical research by its faculty and students, and as an aid in teaching and public outreach.
Located atop a nearly 9,000-foot-high peak called Cerro Pachón — home to some of the driest conditions and clearest air on Earth — SOAR is one of only a handful of 4-meter telescopes in the world. Clemens led a team from UNC-Chapel Hill’s Goodman Laboratory for Astronomical Instrumentation in building the Goodman High Throughput Spectrograph, SOAR’s workhorse instrument, at Carolina in the early 2000s.
In February 2021, scientists used another spectrograph, the Habitable-zone Planet Finder (HPF), to validate the discovery of a new exoplanet twice the size of Earth called G 9-40b. The HPF was built by a Penn State team and installed on the 10m Hobby-Eberly Telescope at McDonald Observatory in Texas. But the spectrograph required a custom diffractive optic that no commercial vendor was able to produce, so the project team turned to Clemens and the Goodman Lab to provide the critical component. And during the solar eclipse of 2017, Clemens offered advice for how to safely observe the phenomenon.
Early next year, Clemens begins a new chapter as executive vice chancellor and provost
“I am honored to be able to serve my community at a pivotal time for the University,” said Clemens about his appointment. “The challenges and disruptions we have suffered are substantial, but I believe they also offer opportunities to reflect on our core mission to students, to promote the public good and to put our research and scholarship to work in innovative ways that serve the people of North Carolina. I look forward to working alongside my colleagues, campus leadership, the UNC system and our public stakeholders in pursuit of our common goals.”